Mark Steel: Why didn't Straw mention the veil to the Saudis?

Somehow it all slipped his mind, and instead of questioning their ethics he sold them arms
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Apart from anything else, isn't there something grubby about a cabinet minister suggesting to women who visit his office that they should undress a little?

So Jack Straw sounds like a 1950s cad, saying: "Hmm my dear, problems with your housing benefit, you say. Well let's see if we can't remove this niqab here and deal with it more, ahem, comfortably. Ooh, let's see if this burqa can slip a tad off the shoulder shall we? Ah, now I feel a letter to the Town Hall coming on splendidly Mrs Siddiqi."

Why does it bother him if his constituents want to cover their face? If someone feels it's part of their religion it's not that much of an inconvenience is it? In his next interview, perhaps he'll add, "I also get very offended when Muslims visit me during Ramadan, because I offer them tea and biscuits and they leave them. Some days I've been out specially to get chocolate hobnobs - milk AND plain, so I suggest they stop being so ungrateful and have a bloody snack.

"Then sometimes I say I'd prefer it if they joined me in a can of Grolsch, or that before we look at their planning application we break the ice by chuckling at my compendium of Danish cartoons."

Whatever his purpose, the story has had a predictable effect. For example, a headline in The Sun told us: "A growing number use the veil to provoke us," adding the veil is a "threat". Because some of these veils have got serated edges you know. And there are a growing number of incidents involving Muslim women holding up banks with a sawn-off veil. Wander round any city centre on a Friday night and you'll have to sidestep the hordes of Muslim women, off their faces on mango lassi, growling: "Give us yer mobile - I've got a veil and I'm prepared to use it," before riding round town carrying out drive-by coverings.

Trumping The Sun, the Daily Express tells us: "Muslims constantly demand respect for all their attitudes, no matter how repulsive, barbaric, prejudiced or superstitious, but few show any willingness to embrace the tolerant values of Western democracy ... Thanks to Muslim intolerance, parts of Britain are becoming sectarian hell-holes."

And even when you lay the case out as calmly and reasonably as that, do you know they just won't listen.

There's some wonderful logic in there, such as the idea that where Muslims are isolated into one corner of a town, invariably the poorest and most run down section, that's because they prefer it like that.

For example, a while ago I was in Burnley, a town that elected six BNP councillors, and in a packed city-centre pub, in which a screen showed England play Turkey at football, a crowd began a snappy chorus of: "I'd rather be a paki than a Turk." And do you know, not one Pakistani could be bothered to come along and join in the singing. See - no community spirit.

But, somehow, much of liberal and feminist Britain has expressed support for Jack Straw, which suggests they've not really judged the issue in the context of its time and place.

Because if you suggest how Muslims should amend their behaviour to fit in with modern society, it does make a difference whether or not you were the foreign secretary of a government that went into a war that has killed tens of thousands of civilian Muslims on a set of premises that turned out to be a complete pack of lies. It's like praising a statement about the need to reduce levels of prostitution because of its demeaning impact on women, while ignoring that the person who said it was the Yorkshire Ripper.

Which is why Jack Straw must know his contribution won't lead to a single Muslim thinking: "At last someone has given me the confidence to throw away that veil." Instead, history suggests that when a group of people feel bullied and then one of the bullies questions their religion, that only annoys them more. Boudicca's revolt was sparked when the Romans refused to let the Iceni worship their own gods. The mutiny in the British army in India came when the Hindu soldiers were ordered to load their guns with cartridges greased with fat from cows.

Tell someone who you've already annoyed that they can't follow the rules of their religion and you'll make things worse, even if they're not that religious. If an invading army in this country banning Songs of Praise, I'd happily join a secret society illegally broadcasting pensioners in brown hats singing hymns from a village near Salisbury.

And there are a couple of other issues Jack Straw should address. Would the veil be more acceptable if Muslim men approached it in a British manner, so when a veiled woman walked past them, they all went, "Whoar, look at the pupils on that."

And why has he only raised this issue now, when if only he'd mentioned it when he was foreign secretary, he'd have been able to bring it up with our allies Saudi Arabia, who not only insist women wear veils, but ban them from driving and execute them for adultery.

Because somehow that all slipped his mind and instead of questioning their ethics, he sold them a billion dollars worth of arms instead.

I suppose it's possible he'd been reading The Sun and had a plan, thinking: "Arms aren't threatening - it's veils you've got to worry about. So if I get them to agree that for every cruise missile they buy off us, they agree to scrap one veil, the Middle East will be on the road to peace in no time."